'Truth' will set you free, but not this tour


November 12, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


When Woody Guthrie branded his guitar with the sign, "This machine kills fascists," he was trying to illustrate his belief in the power of music as a political tool.

Woody's ghost was invoked several times on Monday night by Libertyville native Tom Morello and English folk singer Billy Bragg as the multiartist-political activist Tell Us the Truth tour stopped at the Park West. But the performers didn't always remember the primary rules for what makes political rock music effective.

Above and beyond a strong message and a potent sense of humor, the greatest political rock songs work because they're strong rock songs, first and foremost. Too much of the music offered up at the Park West in protest of corporate globalization and media consolidation was wordy, pedantic and tuneless. And worst of all, it didn't rock.

Properly wielded, an acoustic guitar may indeed stop fascists in their tracks. But wouldn't a hard-charging rhythm section and a little feedback be even more efficient?

Headliner Bragg envisioned the tour (which started last weekend at political meetings in Madison, Wis., and is set to culminate next week at fair trade protests in Miami) as a modern hootenanny. "This is what activist music should be like," he said.

But the message was often muddled: The speakers assumed they were preaching to the converted, and never bothered to explain confusing acronyms such as "FTAA" (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and "IMF" (International Monetary Fund), much less the complicated issues behind them. And many of the songs were a snooze.

As a leader of the Chambers Brothers, Lester Chambers may be a '60s legend, but his rote blues and cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (performed twice, at the beginning and end of the show) were nothing special. Only his hit "Time Has Come Today" showed any real spark.

As a would-be modern Guthrie, Bragg has always straddled the line between inspiring and annoyingly preachy. He opened his set with his biggest hit, the pro-diversity anthem "Sexuality," and he shined during his performance of the recent anti-war song "The Price of Oil." But he bogged down during hookless ditties such as "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" and "Upfield," with its celebration of "socialism of the heart" (a phrase that's ultimately as meaningless as "compassionate conservatism").

Best known as the six-string dynamo behind Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, local hero Morello proved himself to be captivating while singing in a sub-Johnny Cash baritone and strumming on an acoustic guitar in his alternate guise as the Night Watchman. But again, fans couldn't help but wonder if songs such as "This House Has Gone Up in Flames" wouldn't have been even more potent in a full band setting.

Though he was advertised as a special guest, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills merely tinkled the keyboards during a few of the group jams. And Steve Earle, who doesn't join the tour until tomorrow, was sorely missed.

Boots Riley of the Oakland, Calif., hip-hop crew the Coup was by far the most entertaining -- and most gripping -- performer of the evening. His raps juxtaposed the painful personal costs of poverty with sarcastic advice on "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." Even better was "Wear Clean Draws," a litany of practical yet radical encouragements to his 6-year-old daughter.

"Tell your teacher I say princesses are evil/The way they got their money is they killed people," Riley rapped. This may not have been political analysis on the level of Chalmers Johnson or Lewis Lapham, but it brought the message of the Tell Us the Truth Tour home in a way that many of the other performers didn't.